A Beginner's Guide to Buying Camera Lenses

Need a new lens? Here's everything you need to know.

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  1. Beyond the Kit Lens It's time to upgrade.
  2. What You Need to Know Learn your lens lexicon.
  3. What Do You Want to Shoot? It takes the right lens to get the best shot.
  4. How to Shop Tips and tricks for getting a great deal on the lens you want.
  5. What Else Is There? Don't get fleeced with useless accessories.
  6. Other Buying Guides Because when it comes to lenses, there's always more to learn.

1. Beyond the Kit Lens

It's time to upgrade.

When you bought your camera, it probably came bundled (or "kitted") with a basic zoom lens. It covers a useful range, it isn’t too big or heavy, and hey, you already own it. Still, it’s not perfect for everything.

For one thing, while it’s pretty handy for everyday situations, the zoom range probably doesn’t go wide enough for shooting architecture or tight enough to get a close-up of your kid on stage during a recital. For another, you just can’t get the kind of beautiful blurred backgrounds you see in professional portraits. And shooting in dim light? Forget it.

If you want to develop your craft, you’re going to need another lens. But which lens you need depends on what kind of camera you own, and what you want to shoot.

2. What You Need to Know

It's time to learn your lens lexicon.

Camera lenses are covered with confusing markings—endless acronyms of unknown origin, measurements, and manufacturer branding. But while these terms vary from model to model, there are two crucial identifiers stamped on every lens: focal length and aperture.

Believe it or not, these two numbers tell you almost everything about what a lens can do.


Focal Length

A lens's focal length is what determines how much of a scene you'll be able to capture (field of view) and how large your subject will appear (magnification). Some lenses, called prime lenses have just a single focal length. Others, called zoom lenses, offer a range of focal lengths. Focal lengths are almost always written in millimeters.

Focal Length Comparison
Credit: Reviewed.com
Wider focal lengths capture more of the scene in front of you. Longer focal lengths bring distant objects close, but cut out the periphery.

Lenses with low focal lengths (wide-angle lenses) can squeeze more of the scene into a single shot, making them ideal for shooting landscapes and architecture. On the opposite end of the spectrum, lenses with high focal lengths (telephoto lenses) hone in on your subjects, bringing them closer. That makes them perfect for portraits, wildlife, and sports. In-between are the "normal” focal lengths—those that most closely reproduce the view of the human eye.

What’s considered wide-angle, normal, or telephoto varies depending on the size of your camera’s sensor. See the illustration below for an example of how sensor size affects your view at a given focal length. And for the full rundown on the relationship between sensor format and focal length, check out this in-depth explainer.

Crop Factor Explained
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"Crop factor" refers to the effect sensor size has on field of view. Sensors smaller than full frame crop a lens's field of view, essentially giving it a longer/higher focal length. Here's one example.

Aperture

Aperture, written as an "f-number" (like f/1.4, F1.4, or 1:1.4), describes the gap in a lens that light passes through to project an image onto your camera’s sensor.

Aperture Size Comparison
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At each full aperture stop, the lens iris tightens to block half of the incoming light. Wider apertures create blurry backgrounds and faster shutter speeds; smaller apertures bring more of the scene into focus but require longer shutter speeds.

A larger or "wider" maximum aperture (signified by a lower f-number) is preferable for two key reasons: It allows more light to hit the sensor, and can help your subject pop out from the background of a shot. The first trait is crucial when you’re shooting in dim lighting or if you want to stop motion, and the second makes for beautiful close-ups—particularly portraits.

Depth of Field Comparison
Wider apertures (like f/1.4) are ideal for portraits, helping your subject stand out from the background. Smaller apertures bring more of the scene into focus, and can improve sharpness.

While prime lenses have only one maximum aperture number, zoom lenses usually have two: one for the maximum aperture at full wide-angle, and one for the maximum aperture at full telephoto. A select group of highly desirable lenses called "constant-aperture zooms" have a maximum aperture that doesn't change as you go through the zoom range.


3. What Do You Want to Shoot?

It takes the right lens to get the best out of your subject.

Now that you know how to tell one lens from another, it’s time to start narrowing your list of candidates. The best way to do that is to figure out what you plan on shooting.

People, Pet, and Baby Lenses
Credit: Ben Keough

Portraits, Kids, and Pets


Classic portrait lenses are used to shoot static subjects like posed people and animals. These lenses have two key traits: a moderately high focal length (between 50mm and 200mm on full-frame, and equivalents in other formats), and a wide maximum aperture (at least f/2.8, but often wider). The best portrait lenses are primes, though some zooms can get the job done.

If you’re shooting fast-moving subjects like kids and pets, you’re going to want something a little more flexible... something like a high-quality zoom lens. A wide aperture is still important, so look for a constant-aperture zoom with a useful range—something like a 24-70mm f/2.8 (for a full-frame camera) or 17-50mm f/2.8 (for APS-C). Most lens-makers offer one, including third-party brands like Sigma and Tamron.

Sports and Wildlife Lenses
Credit: Ben Keough

Sports and Wildlife

When you're shooting sports and wildlife, telephoto reach and a wide aperture are both important. Longer focal lengths magnify your subject in the frame, and a wide aperture can help compensate for difficult lighting or fast-moving subjects.


While most manufacturers offer inexpensive 70–300mm zooms, they usually have mediocre f/3.5–5.6 aperture ranges. If you’re serious about sports, you’d be better served by a wide-aperture telephoto zoom like a 70–200mm f/2.8. If weight is a concern and you’re shooting mostly in bright light, many brands also offer smaller, lighter f/4 versions.

Are you into shooting tiny, distant subjects like birds? You might want even more zoom. Lenses like Nikon’s full-frame 80–400mm and Sigma's “Bigma” 50–500mm APS-C zoom provide crazy amounts of magnification, though their ultimate image quality may not be as high as their more conservative counterparts. For the best image quality in these long shots you can also invest in a super telephoto prime lens like Canon's 400mm f/4, but expect to pay a pretty penny.

Travel and Landscape Lenses
Credit: Ben Keough

Travel and Landscapes


The most important quality in a travel lens is flexibility. Superzooms like Nikon's 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G provide the most flexibility you can get in a single lens, capable of capturing everything from Yellowstone landscapes and the interior of the Hagia Sophia to close-up portraits of your family.

But you’ll make some serious sacrifices to get that all-in-one range: Superzooms aren't as sharp as prime lenses or wide-aperture zooms, they don't perform as well in dim light, and they produce notable distortion.

If you don't mind carrying a couple lenses, you can break the superzoom up into two smaller, lighter lenses (like an 18-55mm and a 55-300mm) that will perform a little better. Or you could take things one step further and replace your zooms with a set of lightweight prime lenses—a 28mm-50mm-85mm trio is common for full-frame shooters, and usually weighs no more than a single superzoom.

Some people value simplicity more than image quality, while other photographers lean the other way. Regardless of which side you fall on, there are plenty of lenses to suit your needs.

Architecture Lenses
Credit: Ben Keough

Architecture

Maybe you’re a realtor, or maybe you just love shooting beautiful buildings. Either way, you’re going to need a really wide lens to cram that whole skyscraper into a single photo. Lucky for you, there are plenty to choose from.


Though very wide prime lenses are an option, a wide zoom is the better choice for most buyers. On an APS-C camera, these usually sport focal lengths in the ballpark of 10-20mm or 10-24mm. Sigma’s 8-16mm is the widest zoom currently available. On full-frame cameras, you're more likely to find a 14-24mm lens.

Going as wide as possible is helpful, but it’s equally important that your lens doesn’t produce visible distortion. Avoid special-purpose lenses like fisheyes, and look for wide lenses described as “rectilinear.” That means the straight lines in your scene will stay straight in the final image.

Product Photography Lenses
Credit: Ben Keough

Product Photography


If you sell stuff on the internet—whether it's through eBay, Etsy, or Craigslist—you know the importance of good product photography. And though virtually any lens can be used to take product shots, there are lenses more ideally suited to the task.

Macro lenses let you get incredibly close to your goods, revealing the beautiful details of things like jewelry, watches, and coins. Most macros have long focal lengths (90mm and above), but there are several wider options (particularly for APS-C cameras) like Pentax’s 35mm f/2.8 Limited and Nikon’s 40mm f/2.8G.

Video

When you’re shooting video with a DSLR or mirrorless camera, focal lengths and aperture are less important than features like image stabilization, smooth and quiet autofocus, and power zoom.


There are two types of image stabilization. In-lens stabilization is found in select lenses from Nikon (signified by a VR label), Canon (IS), Panasonic (OIS), Sony (SteadyShot), Samsung (OIS), and Fujifilm (OIS). Olympus and Pentax, meanwhile, use an in-body image stabilization system. That means any lens you use on their cameras will be stabilized.

For quiet autofocus, you’ll want to look for lenses with built-in focus motors. Virtually everything on the market today meets this requirement, with the exception of some Pentax models and late-model (D-type) Nikon lenses. However, some lenses claim to have autofocus algorithms that are better optimized for video than others.

Power zoom replaces (or augments) the traditional mechanical zoom ring with an electronic variable zoom rocker. It lets you zoom as slowly or quickly as you like, with perfect smoothness. These lenses are fairly rare, and almost always designed with video in mind.


4. How to Shop

Tips and tricks for getting the best deal on the lens you want.

Once you know which lens you’re after, it’s time to get the best possible deal.

Buying New

Most shoppers will want to buy a new lens from a reputable seller. Stick to well-known stores and internet shops; Best Buy, Target, and other big-box stores are fine, but specialists like B&H Photo Video, Adorama, and Amazon will carry a wider selection of lenses. And don’t forget to give your local camera shop a look.

If you want to be covered against all eventualities, be careful to only buy lenses intended for sale in your country. Buying “grey market” lenses imported from other regions could lead to warranty issues down the road.

Buying Used

One of the best things about lenses is that they hold their value exceptionally well. Your camera body may depreciate by 50% or more within a couple years, but as long as a lens maintains compatibility with current bodies, it will remain valuable for years or even decades.

Buying a used lens can help you save a few bucks up front, as long as you make sure you buy from a reputable site. Camera equipment dealers like B&H and Adorama have used gear shops with detailed condition ratings, and other sites like KEH.com specialize in used equipment. The down-side, of course, is that most used lenses don’t come with a warranty.

Extended Warranties

If you’re buying a new lens, you have the option of buying an extended warranty. These policies provide added coverage after your factory warranty expires (typically 1 to 5 years from the time of purchase). Mack warranties can be tacked on to a lens purchase at many retailers, and they can also be purchased independently from resellers like Amazon. SquareTrade is another well-respected option.

These policies will cost you anywhere from 10 to 30% of the lens purchase price for 2 to 7 years of extra coverage. Many also include protection from spills, drops, and other accidents—often with no deductible.

If you buy with a major credit card, you may get an extra year of warranty coverage through your credit card company.

If you purchase your new lens with a major credit card, you may be entitled to an extra year (or more) of warranty coverage through your credit card company. And if you have renter’s or homeowner’s insurance, your lens should also be covered against theft, fire, flooding, and other known hazards. Most insurance policies don’t cover accidental damage, but you add riders for extra coverage. These policies typically include a deductible.

Some camera shops and online resellers also offer their own warranty policies. These vary in their terms and conditions, so when in doubt, ask the seller.


5. What Else Is There?

Don't get fleeced with useless accessories.

Retailers like to bundle lenses with accessories, like lens-cleaning cloths and fluids, cases, and filters. While most of these items are completely unnecessary, a select few may actually come in handy.

Don't get suckered into buying accessories you don't need.

When film was king, filters were an important tool in any serious photographer’s arsenal. Today, you can replicate most of the effects filters provided in photo editing software. The major exceptions are neutral density filters and polarizing filters, which alter the way light hits your sensor and can dramatically affect your images as a result.

Most lenses that require a lens hood include one in the box, but if not, you have options. If there’s an optional first-party hood, you can usually purchase it direct from the manufacturer or through a major camera retailer. If not, there's an endless supply of generic hoods available on eBay. But be careful—some hoods can actually block your lens’s view. Always try to find one that’s designed to suit the focal length(s) in question.

As for caps, lenses come with them for a reason. If you’re putting your lens away, make sure you reattach the cap to avoid damage and costly repairs. The rear element is especially vulnerable, and scratches there will have a bigger effect on image quality than damage to the front element. If you lose your caps, they can be easily replaced with generics from eBay or a local camera shop.


6. Other Buying Guides

Because when it comes to lenses, there's always more to learn.

Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.

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